It was spring in Glenumbra, and with the warming weather came what Aresin liked to call “bandit season.” The Red Rook bandits had grown bolder of late and had even gone so far as to take a local resident and his family hostage in their own home. The city guard was undermanned, so Aresin sent Amelia and Kireina to help rescue the family and get rid of the bandits.
The women went to Noellaume Manor northeast of town and met with Captain Farlivere, who was set up half a mile outside the grounds.
“The biggest problem we have at the moment is the wolves,” the captain told them. “The Red Rooks use trained wolves to guard their camp. It increases their confidence, I guess, but it also makes them careless.”
She handed Amelia a sack full of foliage. “This is wolf’s woe. I need you to infiltrate the camp and get into the manor, then give this to Lord Arcady Noellaume and his family. The plant will mask their scents, and they should be able to walk past the wolves and get out of the area. Bring them to me if you can. Once you’ve taken care of the wolves and released the hostages, we can charge in and take out the bandits.”
“Anything else we need to know?” Kireina asked.
“Sure is.” She picked up a knapsack from nearby and handed it to the Nord. “They’ve probably locked the house, so you’ll have to find the key; it’s probably on the chief or in his tent. I hear you’re good at subterfuge. Inside that sack are two Red Rook uniforms, which you can use to sneak past the bandits.”
“Can’t we just fight our way through?”
Farlivere shook her head. “There are too many for two of you. Sneak through, get the key, and rescue the hostages. Kill anyone who tries to stop you, but try not to cause too much of a ruckus.”
“No, these are great,” said Amelia, taking the knapsack from Kireina and pulling out the disguises. “Don’t worry, Kireina. I’m sure there will be some Red Rooks for you to kill.”
“I can always hope,” she replied with a chuckle.
Amelia and Kireina went behind a shrub and changed into the disguises, then left their armor with the captain and set out toward the camp, Kireina grumbling about the lack of protection the disguises provided. They held some protective magic, but they probably wouldn’t stand up to a sword to the belly. They walked through like they owned the place, and though a few of the bandits gave them suspicious glances, no one stopped them. They finally had to fight when they reached the chief’s tent. A vicious-looking orc stood just outside the doorway, arms folded, talking to a burly Nord. There was no way past them.
“Yes!” Kireina whispered triumphantly.
They drew their weapons and snuck up on the bandits as best they could, then engaged them. Amelia took the orc, casting a Soul Shred spell on him first. The spell stunned him momentarily, and she was able to draw her swords and get in a couple of good strikes before he came out of it and swung his heavy warhammer at her. She narrowly dodged a devastating blow to the head, darting in to make two deep slashes across his midsection. With an “oof” and a spray of blood, he collapsed to the ground and died. Amelia turned just in time to see Kireina decapitate the Nord.
Her friend growled with vigor as the head flew and blood gushed all over her. “That’s what I needed!” she exclaimed.
“I’m happy for you, but keep your voice down. I love a good fight as much as you do—well, maybe not that much—but the captain was right. There are too many Red Rooks to take down ourselves, so just hush.”
“Eh, you’re ruining all my fun,” Kireina teased.
Amelia and Kireina checked the bandits’ pockets for a key, but there was none. When they searched the tent, however, Amelia found it in a lockbox on a table. “Let’s get inside,” she said.
They crossed the yard, stopping to fight one of the troop’s trained wolves, an altercation that left Kireina panting with a wild look in her eyes.
“Rein it in, Kir,” Amelia warned her.
“I’m all right. I guess the wolf’s woe wasn’t strong enough to mask my scent, huh?”
“I’m surprised it attacked; it was probably terrified of you. Gods, I’m terrified of you.”
They entered the house and killed the bandit that was on guard, then went downstairs to find the Noellaume family tied up in the basement. They untied the hostages and distributed the wolf’s woe, then escorted them out the back way, past the wolves and traps, and to the road where Captain Farlivere and the other guards waited.
“Anything you can tell us about the bandits?” the captain asked Lord Noellaume.
“Yes, yes. I’m glad to help! I would have fought the fiends myself, but they surprised us.”
“It was better letting us do the dirty work, my lord.”
“Some of them came in by boat, but they’re mainly operating out of Ilessan Tower. Most of them are here on the grounds, but a few stayed back at the tower to stand guard.”
Farlivere turned to Amelia and Kireina. “We’ll charge in here and retake the grounds. You two go to Ilessan Tower and clear it out. Report back to me when you’re done.”
Maintaining the disguises but taking their armor with them, the women made their way to the tower, which was just outside of Daggerfall. The above-ground portion of the tower, which was all that was left standing of an old fort, was in ruins. However, a trap door led to a lower level that was still pretty much intact. It was a good hideout for bandits, and though Amelia had never been there, she knew the city guards had to clear the tower most every spring.
They stashed their armor in a nook at the rear of the tower and then drew their swords, and Kireina carefully opened the trap door. Noellaume had been right; there were only a few Red Rooks present, and thanks to the disguises, most of them let the women walk right up before realizing they weren’t supposed to be there. They cleared out the tower in a couple of hours, then checked for loot and anything of interest. Amelia found just such an item on a crate near a cookfire. It was a letter with some startling news.
Loot as much as you can from Ilessan Tower. We need resources to take to the Bloodthorns. We will be in control of Noellaume Manor by the time you’re done. Flank the Daggerfall guards when you get there.
“Sweet Akatosh, the Red Rooks are working with the Bloodthorns!” Amelia gasped.
“Better take that to Aresin.”
“You’re right. Let’s get out of here.”
They left the tower and changed back into their own armor, then reported to Captain Farlivere. When she released them, they headed back to town. They passed a beggar Amelia often gave money to on the way in. She didn’t know his name, but she always spoke, even when she didn’t have any coin to give him. She said hello and started to walk away, but he grabbed her arm.
“Please,” he said, “I need your help.”
“I’m sorry, friend. I don’t have anything on me at the moment.”
“No, no, it’s not the coin; I need something else. You’re the one who stopped the assassination plot, right?”
She nodded. “What can I help you with?”
“There are murders. Somebody—something—is killing Daggerfall’s poor.”
Kireina cocked her head to the side like a curious puppy. “Go on,” she prodded.
“The guards won’t help. They figure it’s just one more bum off the streets.”
That made Amelia angry. She knew the guards and considered many of them her friends. If they were neglecting the poor for any reason, she was going to be very put out. “Who did you talk to?” she asked the beggar with an edge to her voice.
“Lieutenant DuBois. He didn’t say those exact words, you understand. He just implied that he had more important things to worry about. He said it was probably exposure or starvation that killed them, but Red, these people were torn to pieces. When I told him that, he said it was probably just an animal attack.”
“Three, so far.”
“We’ll look into it,” she promised.
“You might start with the alleyways. That’s where all the murders took place.”
“I want to talk to Lieutenant DuBois first, and then we’ll check the alleys.”
They said goodbye to the beggar and went to the town square, where DuBois normally stood watch. He was good looking, mid-thirties, with blond hair and blue eyes. He usually had a smug expression on his face, but after getting to know him, Amelia knew he was actually a nice guy. He just looked like an ass.
“Well met, Red, Kireina,” he said when they approached. He noticed Amelia’s grim expression and said, “What’s wrong?”
“I just heard some local beggars have been murdered.”
DuBois sighed heavily and rolled his eyes. “They haven’t been murdered, Red. That guy isn’t right in the head, and he’s just making up stories.”
“So three of them weren’t torn to pieces? Did you even investigate?”
“I didn’t think it was necessary.”
“DuBois, just because he’s homeless doesn’t mean he’s crazy. You should have checked up on this.”
With a glare, he said, “Are you telling me my job? I report to your boyfriend, not to you.”
“Then I’ll go to him.”
She walked away before he could respond and went to Aresin, who was standing at his post.
His eyes widened when he saw her. “You’re covered in blood. Are you all right?”
“Most of it isn’t mine. I’m okay. We rescued the Noellaume family and helped clear out the bandits, and we found this in Ilessan Tower.” She handed him the note, and he groaned.
“Thanks for bringing this to me. We’ll get right on it.”
Amelia crossed her arms and stared at him.
“What is it? Something else?”
“Do you know about the murders?”
“It’s a big city, Amelia.”
“I’m talking about the poor. Three homeless people were ripped apart.”
“Right, they were animal attacks.”
“How can you be sure? DuBois said you didn’t even look into it.”
“Because they were animal attacks. I thought it was pretty clear. The countryside is crawling with wolves. One of them probably tunneled under the wall.”
Amelia shook her head. “Aresin, you can’t just let this go.”
“Amelia, you know we’re stretched thin. I can’t afford to sacrifice the manpower to check into something involving a bunch of vagrants who were obviously attacked by wolves!”
Amelia’s blood boiled, and she recoiled as if he’d slapped her. “‘A bunch of vagrants’? I can’t believe you actually said that! You know I’ve lived on the streets. Am I a vagrant?”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”
“Gods damnit, Aresin, that’s what the guard is for!”
He rolled his eyes. “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”
She merely glared at him.
“Fine, fine. Check into it, but I think you’re going to come to the same conclusion as we did. If you actually find anything, I’ll see to it that you’re compensated.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll do this one at no charge.”
“Why are you so upset?”
“They might be homeless, but that doesn’t mean they’re bums. They’re down on their luck, but they deserve the same respect as your fine, upstanding citizens, and you and DuBois are telling me they’re not worth your time. Which means if I was living on the streets, I wouldn’t be worth it.”
“Amelia, you don’t understand. You don’t stand up here and watch the city every day, and you don’t see what I do.”
“No, I most definitely do not, and maybe that’s a good thing. Look, I have to go. I want to find out what’s going on here as soon as I can.”
“Will I at least see you later so we can talk about this?” he asked plaintively.
“I don’t know. You’re not the person I thought you were, Aresin. I need time to think. I’ll at least let you know what we turn up, though.” She turned her back and walked away.
But she didn’t turn around. She just kept going.
Kireina followed behind her, and when she caught up, she said, “Well, that went well.”
“‘A bunch of vagrants.’”
“I don’t think he meant anything by it.”
“That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? He didn’t think about what he was saying because he has no consideration for them. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Let’s take a look at the alleys, okay?”
“Right with you.”
They started with the alleys on the south side of town and found a crime scene almost immediately. Someone had taken the body away, but blood was spattered all over the ground and the back wall of a house. Kireina sniffed around while Amelia took a closer look, and then they compared notes.
“I found some hair and a few pieces of clothing next to the wall,” said Amelia. “Without a body to examine it’s hard to say, but I think our friend may have been right about them being ripped apart.”
“There are two scents,” Kireina noted, “one of the victim and one that’s . . . disturbing. And it’s not a wolf. I just hope I’m wrong about what it is.”
“What do you think it is?”
A man and a woman were seated on the ground nearby, surrounded by some bags and a few odds and ends, and before Kireina could answer Amelia, the man called them over.
“Take care,” he warned. “A vicious monster stalks these alleyways.”
“Why are you back here, then?” Amelia asked.
“This is where we live,” he replied defensively.
“It’s been attacking mostly at night,” the woman told them.
“What kind of monster?” asked Kireina apprehensively.
“We haven’t seen it. None have seen it and lived.”
They went on and searched some of Daggerfall’s other alleys and found another bloody scene on the west side. There was more shredded clothing, and Amelia found several small bones, probably from a hand or foot.
Just around the corner from the scene, a man called them over. “You’re investigating, yes? Word travels fast.”
“Yes, we are,” said Amelia. “Anything you can tell us?”
“It’s a werewolf.”
“Damn it!” Kireina exclaimed. “I was afraid you were going to say that.”
“Terrible things are going on here, right under the city guard’s noses, and they do nothing. Necromancers are prowling the streets, those terrible green vines are cropping up all over, and now a werewolf stalks the poor.”
“What do the vines have to do with it?” asked Amelia.
“The vines belong to the Bloodthorn Cult, didn’t you know? Wherever the vines appear, the Bloodthorns aren’t far away.”
“And how do you know that?”
He gave her a sly smile. “Nobody pays attention to the homeless. We’re invisible. That means we can listen. We know more about what goes on in this city than anyone because nobody pays us any mind. The Bloodthorns are in Daggerfall, and you know it. And if you didn’t, the vines are proof.”
“But what makes you think it’s a werewolf?” Kireina demanded.
“Mariah the Invisible saw it. Seven feet tall, covered in fur, long, sharp claws and fangs. It was last seen over by the river; that was a couple of days ago.”
“A werewolf. In my city!”
“Your city?” the man echoed. “What do you mean?”
“Just that we feel responsible for the welfare of the residents here,” Amelia said quickly. “Rest assured, friend, we’ll take care of it.”
They left the man on the corner and headed toward the river, Kireina seething. This was one of the few times Amelia had ever seen her angry, and she was trembling and red-faced. “A fucking werewolf in Daggerfall. Who does he think he is?”
“He’s a smart one too. He’s only targeting the homeless, whom few people will miss, if any. I wonder if he’s associated with the Bloodthorns.”
“He has to be; it’s too coincidental otherwise. Look, you can tag along, Red, but if we find this werewolf, he’s mine. Daggerfall is only big enough for one werewolf.”
“Understood. Do you think he knew you lived here?”
“My scent is all over town; I even marked the outer walls and city gates. He knew.”
They searched the riverbank, and although they found some tracks that definitely belonged to a werewolf, they didn’t find the creature himself. Craning her neck and sniffing, Kireina began tracking the beast. She lost his scent when it went into the water, but she found it again on the other side of the river. It led under the bridge and to a small opening under the wall.
“How did the guards not see that?” she grumbled.
“It’s out of the way. He tunneled under the wall just next to the bridge where nobody ever goes, and he was able to slip in and out as he pleased.”
“Well, no more.” Kireina crawled into the tunnel, which was big enough to accommodate a werewolf, so the women had no trouble getting through. It led back up to ground level a few feet outside the wall, and Kireina continued to follow the scent. She didn’t find the creature, but she found the man, sitting by a cookfire at a camp hidden in the woods about half a mile out of town.
The werewolf recognized Kireina by her scent, and with a snarl, he began to shift to his beast form, as did Kireina. With the ripping of clothing, the crunch of bone and the squish of flesh, the Nord changed into a monstrous beast. Amelia had seen her friend shift twice before, and it always gave her chills. Kireina wasn’t small by any means, but the change in size was astonishing, and she radiated sheer rage. The presence of the slavering monster—even though it was her best friend—terrified her. After all, werewolves couldn’t always control their impulses, and she couldn’t be sure she wasn’t in any danger.
Resting her hands on her swords, she took several steps back and watched in horror as Kireina charged the other werewolf, roaring with fury and then laughing maniacally as she tore him to pieces. He shifted back to human form as he perished, and Amelia tried not to watch as Kireina ripped into his chest, yanked out his heart, and ate it. Finally, panting and covered with blood, her friend looked over at her. “I’ll be back,” she growled, and she loped off toward the river.
Amelia figured Kireina was cleaning up, so she sat down with her back to a nearby tree and waited, staring at the torn body of the werewolf. She was still spattered with blood, herself; she could probably do with a bath too. But she would wait till she got home rather than bathe in the river. Deciding she should inspect the camp, she got up and went over, stepping around the blood and gore as best she could. The search was successful, and she recovered a few pieces of jewelry and a letter.
Your infiltration into Daggerfall has been noticed, and you are instructed to take more care with your hunt. You are there to gather evidence, not slaughter the locals. If you cannot maintain better control, we will remove you and send someone else in.
Hail Faolchu and Angof
Angof. So it was the Bloodthorns, and this werewolf was a spy. He just couldn’t control his impulse to kill.
It occurred to Amelia that the Bloodthorns were arrogant, writing letters to each other and keeping them out in the open as if they couldn’t imagine anyone possibly opposing them. They weren’t afraid, and they weren’t subtle. Well, that was fine. It would just make her job easier.
After a few minutes, Kireina came loping back, clean and wet. When she reached the camp, she shifted back to her human form and stood before Amelia, stark naked, with a smile on her face.
“Good thing we kept those Red Rook uniforms,” she quipped. “Can’t very well head back to town with no clothes on.”
“You smell like a wet dog.”
“I probably should have shifted back before I jumped in the river.”
“Are you okay?”
“Of course. Got to blow off steam, got to feed; I’m one happy werewolf. Of course, I need new armor—again—but I’m used to that.”
“Well, it scared the crap out of me.”
“I’m sorry about that. I wouldn’t hurt you; surely you know that.”
“What if you had lost control?”
Kireina shook her head as she rummaged through the knapsack for a Red Rook uniform. “A werewolf who can’t control her impulses isn’t a very good werewolf.”
“Apparently this guy couldn’t.” She read the note to her friend.
“Uh-huh, and it got him killed. Bad werewolf. No biscuit.” She looked at Amelia pensively. “Angof we know, but who is Faolchu? There was a sort of werewolf king named Faolchu, but he’s long dead.”
“I don’t know. We’ll have to keep our eyes and ears open. Let’s get back to town and tell Aresin what we found and remind him that he needs to take the poor more seriously.”
The sun had set by the time they walked through the gates of Daggerfall, and Amelia sighed with satisfaction. At least for now, the homeless didn’t have to fear the night, and she was glad about that. But the Bloodthorns wouldn’t let it stay that way for long. The werewolves, the vines, the assassination attempt—and she couldn’t forget what the beggar had said about necromancers. And they all worshiped Molag Bal. With that thought, the satisfaction melted away and anxiety set in. Worrying was a waste of energy, though, so she strengthened her resolve to do whatever it took to stop the Bloodthorn Cult and Molag Bal.